What is the Palermo Protocol?

The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols Thereto is the main international legal instrument in the fight against transnational organised crime, including human trafficking. The Convention was signed by Member States including the United Kingdom in December 2000 in Palermo, Italy, and came into force on the 29th September 2003. The United Kingdom ratified the Convention on the 9th February 2006.

The Convention’s Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (the Palermo Protocol) came into force on the 25th December 2003 and contains the internationally accepted definition of human trafficking which has been adopted by the majority of countries around the world. The protocol provides a shared legal basis for laws investigating and prosecuting trafficking offences in different countries.

The Palermo Protocol defines child trafficking as comprising two distinct stages: the Act and the Purpose. The Act is the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or reception of persons, including the exchange or transfer of control over those persons” ... “for the purpose of exploitation” (the Purpose).

The definition of child trafficking differs from that of adults, which requires an extra stage for trafficking to be present – that of the Means: “of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person”.

The Means stage is not required for the definition of child trafficking. This is not to say that this stage does not occur for child victims, but the definition recognises that a child cannot give informed consent to his or her own exploitation, even if he or she agrees to travel or understands what has happened.

A child is defined by the Palermo Protocol and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as any person under the age of 18.

Some of the protocol’s key provisions include:

  • Definitions of trafficking in human beings for child and adult victims
  • Assistance and protection for victims, with particular regard to legal information; housing; counselling; medical, psychological and material assistance; employment, educational and training opportunities; and channels to claim compensation
  • Ensuring that States’ legislation against trafficking reflects children’s needs for special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, housing, education and care
  • Consideration of temporary or permanent residence for victims of trafficking in destination or transit countries on humanitarian and compassionate grounds
  • Protection from unsafe returns to victims’ countries of origin
  • Establishment of policies to prevent trafficking and re-trafficking
  • Introduction of measures to alleviate factors that make children vulnerable to trafficking, such as poverty and lack of equal opportunities
  • Obligation for ratifying States to introduce national trafficking legislation with criminal penalties for traffickers